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Festival: Folk Music at Newport 1963-1966 (2017) review

Festival: Folk Music at Newport 1963-1966
A Film by Murray Lerner
Criterion Collection Blu Ray/DVD 2017

  Part of what makes D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back – his documentary film of Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour – so remarkable is that Pennebaker didn’t set out to simply capture Dylan’s gigs from that time and present them in a straightforward way. He shot and edited the footage in an artful manner that made the viewer experience the moments in the heady and often chaotic way they must have felt to those present. You get inside the tour, and not only via the concerts but throughout all the other episodes that were part of the whirlwind series of events. Filmmaker Murray Lerner – who, sadly, passed away earlier this month – accomplished this same kind of comprehensive artistry in his 1967 feature Festival, which presents a collage of moments Lerner shot at the famed Newport Folk Festival over the years 1963-66.
  Anyone who watches Lerner’s film just hoping for a kind of visual catalogue of stage appearances by the many notable acts present at the annual event, is likely to get frustrated. Lerner’s documentary is not chronological, instead jumping around between the four years during which the footage was captured. And there are no date stamp titles on the screen, so at any given moment you don’t really know which year the scene you’re watching happened during. He gave plenty of screen time to audience members, showing them take in the event and letting them have their say as to what the festival, and folk music in general, meant to them. Sometimes he showed artists doing their songs from start to finish, and other times we only get snippets of the numbers. He made a point of showing a wide array of the different kinds of acts that appeared at the festival, shifting unpredictably from folk to soul to spiritual to blues, to a woman who used her cheeks as a percussion instrument in song.     The viewer comes away feeling not only like he or she got a taste of what the music was like at these extravaganzas, but what the entire experience must have been like for those who were lucky enough to be on hand.
  The music is dazzling. Highlights include Joan Baez beautifully nailing Dylan’s “Farewell, Angelina,” Bob himself stunning the crowd with a powerful rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell playing raw blues and Howlin’ Wolf doing rocked-up blues, Johnny Cash haunting the audience with “I Walk the Line,” etc. There are also memorable performances by The Staple Singers, Donovan, Richard and Mimi Farina, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and various collections of soul and gospel singers and groups. If there’s one valid complaint one might have about the film, it’s that some of these songs are cut too short. The flip side of that problem is, though, that Lerner used the saved time by letting us hear from the artists as they talked about their music offstage, and sometimes showing them as they interacted with one another and with audience members. 
  Criterion Collection’s new presentation of Festival comes with a booklet that contains an informative essay about the film, and short biological sketches of many of the acts who are on display. There are also bonus features that provide in-depth looks into the movie.

 - Brian Greene
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